Some school days are just more memorable than others. As an educator, there are those moments and special activities that you just know your students will remember for a lifetime. Yesterday was one of those days for our fifth grade!
When Yeshivat He’Atid was invited to participate in the MLK Interfaith Day of Service at the Jewish Federation of Northern NJ, it sounded like an appropriate way to commemorate this great American hero and teach our fifth graders about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
Yet the day was so much more than a mere lesson in history. It was brilliantly designed by Bergen County Freeholder Tracy Zur to bring children of different faiths together for a day of community service and friendship building, and in so doing to fully actualize the meaning of Dr. King’s “Dream.”
I watched our students engaged in dialogue with children of various cultures—Sikhs, Muslims and Jews—explaining to each other the purpose and meanings of their various head coverings, and sharing how we each greet one another (Shalom, Salaam Aleichem). It was heartening to see children of different religions chatting around a table, telling each other about themselves while answering getting-to-know-you questions in the form of an ingenious art project. With gratitude and awe, I watched American children, from diverse cultures, sitting together writing letters to our American soldiers that are defending our freedom to be different yet equal.
Beyond building bridges of friendship, time was also devoted to the importance of helping those less fortunate; the children, now friends, worked together in assembling hygiene kits (toothpaste, shampoo etc.) for the homeless.
The afternoon culminated with a group photograph of the 80 interfaith students present that looked like a delegation of students from the United Nations.
I stood in the corner of the room at the Federation building seeing the reality of Dr. King’s words having come to fruition; my students were interacting with children from different cultures and religions and not judging them “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” As Dr. King dreamed, “ ….when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
It had come to pass.
Here’s what some of our students said at the conclusion of the afternoon:
“It was educating to meet and be paired up with other kids who have other religions. We got to play fun games and I learned it doesn’t matter what religion you are because we are all the same.”—Mathew Ruben
“It was inspiring to learn why people look the way they look, dress the way they dress, and why they believe in what they believe”—Samantha Pruzansky
It was interesting to learn about other cultures and religions. Just because they look different, we’re all the same.”—Jerry Flamholz
This lesson in tolerance continues to be so important during these complicated times. I am very grateful that my students had the unique opportunity to participate in this exceptional interfaith communal experience. I hope it’s the first of many such opportunities for children of diverse faiths to meet and interact as neighbors, in peace and harmony.
By Dr. Tani Foger